Cities build on top of themselves, new layers atop the old. Sometimes that’s literal, which is why the basements of some San Francisco buildings have ships beneath them. Sometimes that’s figurative, which is where you get gentrification. But whereas the literal layering leaves remnants behind for later generations to discover, gentrification often erases all trace of what came before, as though the past were a thought crime.
I arrived at the Evil Eye on the Sunday after a big Saturday during which the whole city partied, so the place was nearly deserted. That wasn’t an accident: I wanted to see it in slow motion. In some ways it looks almost like a twitter hashtag: #ThingsSFhipstersLike. Two pinball machines sat in the front, leading quickly to a long bar, which opens up into a faux Edwardian parlor with leathery couches, low-key lighting, art on the walls (sorry: “art” on the walls), and a photo booth. A fucking photo booth, in the middle of all that. There’s also a TV above the bar, but it was turned off, thank God. That would have broken all the affectation that the photo booth already hadn’t. Seriously, why is that TV even here, hanging over the bar like the sword of Damocles?
The space in which Evil Eye operates on Mission Street used to be the Savannah Jazz Club, but you could never tell by looking at it. I really liked the Savannah Jazz Club: I am a remnant it left behind when it closed four years ago. Which makes me predisposed to dislike Evil Eye. I really don’t know if that’s fair or not. Maybe fair has nothing to do with it. But … but … Evil Eye isn’t the first business to move into that spot after the jazz club closed, and … gotta be honest here … I never saw the jazz club crowded, except when the occasional busload of French tourists walked in. Other than that, it was almost always deserted. Even desolate, despite musicians bleeding for their art on stage. I’m angry that Savannah Jazz Club left us, even as I have no idea how it stayed open that long.
But it mattered to me that I see Evil Eye on a slow night.
And slow it was. There were two bartenders (and man and a woman) and five customers, including me. Two of the customers appeared to be friends of the bartenders, who were talking about food a mutual acquaintance made. It was not good eavesdropping. The couple sitting to my left were talking in a language I didn’t recognize. I was on my own.
The cocktail list is divided into “shaken,” “stirred,” “punch bowls” and “classic,” along with a small beer and wine list. The food menu is divided into “snacks,” “protein,” “produce,” and “sweets.”
I asked the bartender what he recommended, and he steered me towards a Velvet Fog (rye, shiso brandy, concord grape shrub, lemon, egg white, absinthe — shaken). It’s lovely. The absinthe balances the sweet and savory elements. Score one for Evil Eye. I followed it up with an order of chicken biscuits (from the “protein” section), which the bartender approved of enthusiastically.
As I waited for them to arrive, the friends-of-the-bartender started talking about bringing special bottles of spirits back from a foreign trip, and I realized that they’re all in the industry. The conversation, alas, was still wanting.
Instead I talked to the male bartender about the Savannah Jazz Club. I’d wondered if this would be a sore point, or an irritant, but it turned out he remembers it as fondly as I do. “It was really great to have here,” he told me. “But … honestly, I have no idea how they stayed open as long as they did. My buddy’s band used to play it, and it was always empty and nobody showing up for the music ever bought more than one drink.”
“What is wrong with this city?” I asked him.
“I don’t know.”
The chicken biscuits arrived (really, chicken sandwiches on biscuits) and they were utterly delicious. The honey chicken was just sweet enough to be perfectly rounded out by the sour pickles and the fluffy bread. Score two for Evil Eye. Damn it, I was liking this place in spite of myself.
The friends in the industry starting gossiping with the bartenders about employment practices at other bars. Their conversation was FINALLY interesting. Honestly, people, get to the good stuff sooner.
They named names, specific bars and people, and I’m not going to tell you everything — it wouldn’t be right. But they are living in fear of the way in which even the most high-end bars in the city are slashing the pay of their employees to the lowest level possible, leaving it impossible to make a living as a bartender or server anymore.
“You can’t keep a bomb-ass barstaff if that’s what you’re paying, and that’s what everybody’s paying,” the female bartender said. Like artists and monks, bartending in the city is transition from a “job” to become a “calling” for people who will sacrifice everything else in their life to do it right. And they were terrified.
Welcome to journalism, I thought.
I looked over the menu, and a bartender came over. “Okay,” I said, “I’m intrigued by the Padrino, but … it sounds like a stunt cocktail to me …”
“A what?” she said.
“A stunt cocktail.” She gave me a look. “You know,” I tried to explain. “A cocktail that exists not so much because it’s actually worth drinking, but because all the pieces are weird and exotic enough that it’s impressive just to say ‘hey, we did this!’ and someone will buy it because it’s weird and exotic … ”
“Ah, no,” she said. “We don’t do that.” I think I offended her. “We build our cocktails to be yummy.”
“Okay … I was just asking, I mean, it’s a very unusual description …”
“It’s great,” she said. “Delicious.”
“Do you want one?” the other bartender asked.
Sometimes, when you can’t stop digging yourself into a hole, it’s good to have someone toss you a lifeline. “Yeah,” I said. “That’s where I was going with that.”
The Padrino is brown sugar and sage scotch, applejack, amaretto, and bitters – stirred. Now that I’d ordered it, I had to ask: What the hell is “brown sugar and sage scotch?” It turned out to be an in-house creation with a Bank Note scotch base. The bartender walked me through the process of how they create it – it’s damn inventive and creates a unique taste that is nicely bounded by the amaretto and bitters.
All right, that’s three. I’m calling it: Evil Eye’s got game. I’d much rather Savanna Jazz Club was a viable entity, but since it’s not, this is a bar I can get into.